Scott McLemee explores various scholars’ rationales for self-plagiarism.
Last spring the American Society for Engineering Education’s magazine Prism ran an opinion piece titled “Plagiarism Is Not a Victimless Crime” by Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University. It ended with an admonishment to scholarly editors and publishers: “Exposing plagiarists without implementing an unforgiving policy (punishment) that terminates the practice is to do nothing.” So far, so punitive. But in an interesting detour, Bejan threw down the gauntlet at publishers who “playact as enemies of plagiarism” by accusing authors of “self-plagiarism” when they recycle portions of their own work.
“The term is nonsense,” Bejan wrote. “One does not steal from oneself; one owns what one creates. Accusing the creative author of self-plagiarism is like accusing Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi of thievery because they sold many pieces of art that looked like their own art from a few years back.” The first part of his complaint — what we might call the argument from oxymoronicism — is sure to be raised whenever the concept of self-plagiarism comes up.
Less familiar, perhaps, is the notion of self-copying as one of the privileges of creativity. Bejan may be responding to an essay by David Goldblatt called “Self-Plagiarism” (the top JSTOR search result on the topic by relevance) that appeared in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1984. Goldblatt’s understanding of originality is stringent, almost punishing. Artists who “ride on the coattails of their previous successes” — who “mak[e] no aesthetic progress” and resort to “insignificantly repeating features that have been created at some other time, even if those features were created by the artist him or herself” — are guilty of “enjoying the status of ‘artist’ when that status has expired.” Aesthetic progress, it seems, is a jealous god, and vengeful in his wrath. Bejan’s remarks on Picasso et al. seem a lot more generous.